Workers asked to self-isolate face compensation ‘postcode lottery’, CIPD says

Experts call for review of support scheme as just a third of claims for financial help are paid out

Just one in three claims for financial support made by workers in England told to self-isolate by the NHS Test and Trace service have been paid out, research from the CIPD has found, with low-income workers facing a “postcode lottery” over whether or not they receive help.

A series of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests found that just a third (35 per cent) of claims made for the £500 Test and Trace support payment had been paid out by local authorities, with some areas paying out at far higher rates than others.

As England began this week rolling out regular and rapid Covid testing for key workers – which is likely to increase the number of workers told to self-isolate – the CIPD has called on the government to urgently review its compensation scheme to ensure Test and Trace isn’t undermined because individuals can’t afford to stay away from work.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy for the CIPD, said: “[The government] must ensure that the eligibility criteria aren’t overly strict, ruling out deserving applicants who are trying to do the right thing and self-isolate under the government’s own advice.”

In September last year it became law that anyone in England and Wales contacted by Test and Trace and asked to self-isolate is required to comply – with both individuals and employers facing fines for breaking the rules.

The government also introduced the Test and Trace support payment scheme to provide low earners in England in Wales – many of whom would be ineligible for statutory sick pay – with one-off grants if they were asked by Test and Trace to self-isolate. Local authorities were tasked with administering the scheme.

Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter

However, FOI requests made to 34 English local authorities in November last year found that just over a third (36 per cent) of applications to the scheme made by workers who also claim benefits had been approved. This dropped to 31 per cent for discretionary payments made to the scheme by non-benefits claimants.

In total, 37,270 claims had been made to the 34 authorities that were sent FOIs. Of the 31,111 claims that had been decided upon, 10,916 (35 per cent) had been paid out.

The FOI requests also found large disparities in the rates that different local authorities approved applications through the scheme. Camden Council, for example, approved 75 per cent of applications. In comparison, only 23 per cent of applications received by Liverpool City Council were approved, and Sandwell Council approved just 16 per cent.

Willmott said the findings raised concerns that low-income workers applying for support because they have been told to self-isolate faced a “postcode lottery”, warning that a lack of financial support for these individuals threatened to “significantly undermine the system at a time when the need for people to safely isolate at home is greater than ever before”.

“The government should urgently review its operation with a view to ensuring consistency over the criteria used by councils for granting compensation payments,” Willmott said. 

He added that the government needed to consider how the compensation scheme could be marketed more effectively, and whether enough money had been allocated to councils to ensure the scheme had sufficient funding for the months ahead given the recent surge in the infection rates and the latest lockdown.

When the scheme launched in September, the government made an initial £50m available to local authorities to cover the cost of administering it. This included £15m for discretionary payments to people who fall outside the scope of the main scheme but who will still face hardship if they have to self-isolate. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said the government was now providing a further £20m to local authorities to enable them to continue administering the scheme, which includes £10m for discretionary payments.

They added: “To date we have made £50m available, with an additional £20m to come, to ensure local authorities can make payments to people on low incomes who need to self-isolate. We are working closely with the 314 local authorities to collate information and data on how the scheme is progressing.”

Recently, separate research conducted by the TUC found a fifth (20 per cent) of workers forced to self-isolate because of Covid but unable to work from home did not receive any sick pay or wages during that time.

The TUC survey of 2,231 English and Welsh workers also found 21 per cent had to fall back on their savings, while one in 10 (10 per cent) said they struggled to cover their bills or had to go into debt.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said that with infection rates still rising it was “more important than ever” that individuals were able to self-isolate. “But the lack of decent sick pay is undermining Britain’s public health effort and is forcing workers to choose between doing the right thing and being plunged into hardship,” she said.